The scarcity of water along the route of the Hejaz Railway was one of the greatest challenges facing the construction teams. Large quantities were used in the mixing of cement for the building of bridges, culverts and stations. In addition, the precious desert commodity was needed for the washing, drinking and cooking purposes of thousands of workmen. Some of the water requirements could be provided from natural sources along the path of the railway. Importantly, many of the old pilgrimage caravanserais had been built in places where large wells and plentiful supplies of water were available. The winter rains were collected in enormous stone reservoirs, called birkas, some of which dated back to Roman times, and which had been a vital resource for the overland pilgrimage before the arrival of the railway. The birka at Jiza in Jordan had a capacity of 70,000 cubic metres and the one at Qatrana, 65 kilometres to the south, had a capacity of 36,000 cubic metres.
The birka at Muazzam Fort was an important source of water for the overland pilgrims on the Darb al Hajj
The large surface area of the birka at Muazzam meant that evaporation was a problem during the summer heat
The skeleton of a 'windmill' wind-driven water pump at AlUla Station looms over the rapidly expanding new town
Old wells along the pilgrimage route were repaired and deepened by the construction teams and, where necessary, new ones were dug. Water towers were built alongside many of the stations to store and distribute the water. Small stations had single tank towers, but larger depots were equipped with double tanks. In areas where the local population were strongly opposed to the coming of the railway, the tops of the metal tanks were covered with a protective stone cladding to prevent bullet holes piercing the metal.
Another common feature on the railway was the wind-driven 'windmill' water pump, provided to maximise the supply from natural sources. In the south, the almost constant winds, created by the great changes in temperature, meant that steam pumps, installed as back-ups, rarely had to be used. Pack animals, such as camels, horses and donkeys, could be watered at the rear of the storage towers, where stone conduits conveyed the water into shallow circular drinking troughs.
This small well at Muazzam Caravanserai Fort was reinforced with metal slats from the railway construction
The mouth of a well at AlUla Station. Situated in an area with a plentiful water supply, the depot had three wells
Twin-tank water tower at Bedaya Station, 22 km. south of AlUla, with the remains of a wind-driven water pump nearby
The wind-driven 'windmill' pump at AlUla Station was situated just behind the twin-tank water storage tower
The pump at AlUla was built directly over the mouth of one of the station's 3 wells in order to maximise its output
A circular drinking trough for the watering of pack animals was fed by a short stone conduit leading from the rear of the water tower at AlUla Station
Once the track had been laid, locomotives would be run over the rails in order to embed them and ensure stability. Trains could then transport workers and supplies down the completed line to the railhead. The old locomotives were thirsty machines and the high temperatures meant that frequent stops had to be made to refill the tenders. At stations where there was a plentiful water supply, water columns were installed to replenish them. Short extensions were also constructed from the main track to the wells and birkas of the caravanserai forts in order for them to be filled directly. An early attempt to obtain water from artesian wells was abandoned after the machinery of a Belgian company boring into the rock near Zerqa in Jordan was severely damaged.
One of two water columns at the major station of Hedia - used to replenish the trains' tenders
A restored locomotive with two tenders (coal and water) at Hegra (Medain Saleh) Station. The water tower at Hegra was situated next to the old caravanserai fort, which had an excellent supply of water
An extension was built from Muazzam Station to the fort to take advantage of the water in the large birka
Rails protruding over the edge of Muazzam Fort facilitated the filling of the tenders directly from the birka
The railway teams constructed a small building to manage the distribution of water from the reservoir
The twisted remains of a 'windmill' water pump hang over the protruding rails at the Muazzam birka
Sawra Fort, 2.5 kilometres south-east of Bir Jadeed Station, had an enormous well and a large birka on its northern side
Rails protruding over the great well at Sawra Fort, the final remnant of the short extension built from the main track to take advantage of the plentiful supply of water
During the construction project, water had to be transported to the labouring gangs working in the desert in advance of the railhead. For this purpose, two galvanised 75-litre metal barrels were loaded onto the backs of camels. The water caravans could cover up to 150 kilometres in 3 days, depending on the terrain. In certain regions, in particular along the section of line between Hedia and Abu Na'am Stations, there were almost no sources of natural water and the construction workers, and later the station employees and garrisons, had to be supplied by train delivery. Large metal tanks were placed on the ends of open flat-bed wagons and transported to the stations on a regular basis. The water was stored in reservoirs (small birkas), which were sunk into the ground and provided with covers to minimise contamination and evaporation.
Opposition to the railway did not prevent the bedouin from watering their camels at the pumps along the line
A raised birka with a protective layer of stone cladding was situated by the line at Towaira Station
Metal tanks were placed on flat-bed wagons to be transported down the railway to stations without water
The birka at Dar al Hamra Station was sunk into the ground. A metal cover prevented germs and evaporation
While for most of the year water was scarce and in great demand, one of the main difficulties for the railway construction engineers was the danger of flooding. To take advantage of the flat terrain, the track was mainly built along the great wadis (valleys) which created a passage through the mountainous landscape. However, during periods of heavy rain, the water drained off the sides of the steep valleys and violent torrents would race across ground that had remained dry for years. Owing to these flash floods, the track was laid on a solid embankment, built to a height of between three and four feet. Numerous bridges and culverts were incorporated into the design, allowing the flood water to pass under the line without damaging the track.
The track was laid on a high solidly built earth embankment to protect the line from flood damage during periods of heavy rain
Conscript labourers building the earth embankment on which the sleepers and rails could be securely laid
On the northern section of the railway between Damascus and Mudawwara (just north of the current Saudi-Jordanian border), there were 1,531 pieces of masonry work – 461 bridges, 271 aqueducts and 799 culverts. South of Tabuk, in the Hejaz, four long bridges had to be built to carry the track across Wadi Ithil. Although the bed of this valley was generally dry throughout the year, during the winter of 1906-07 the water beneath the new bridges rose to a height of six feet.
The single-track railway in Jordan. The rails were laid on a bed of ballast spread on the top of a high embankment
This bridge over Wadi Ithil had to be built high enough to cope with flash floods during periods of heavy rain
A 15-arch bridge constructed from locally quarried sandstone carries the track over a wide watercourse on the main line between Khamis and Al Akhdar Stations
One of 15 bridges constructed in the Yarmuk Valley
On the Yarmuk Valley section of the Deraa-Haifa branch line, the steep terrain made the question of safe drainage even more pressing. To minimise the dangers of flash flooding, 15 major bridges, 246 aqueducts and numerous culverts were incorporated into the track on the River Yarmuk stretch. During the winter of 1904-05, heavy rains caused a 4-metre high torrent of water to surge down the valley, tearing away sections of the track, destroying bridges and culverts and setting the construction work back by nearly a month.
Another problem faced by the construction teams was drift sand. In the northern section of the railway (in Syria and in what is now Jordan as far south as Ma'an) the line could be laid on a hard limestone rock base, providing an excellent solid foundation for the track-bed. South of Batn al Ghoul - from the bottom of the great escarpment to Wadi Rutm Station - a stretch of soft sand lay across the path of the railway. Meissner Pasha avoided the worst of it by simply incorporating a wide bend into the track.
A wide curve in the line at the bottom of the Batn al Ghoul escarpment avoided a swathe of soft drift sand
At the western end of Al Khour Valley, to the north of Mabrak al Naga Station, the rail embankment now disappears into the depths of a large sand dune
In the southern area of the Hejaz stretches of soft sand were more commonplace and there was little vegetation to reduce drifting. South of Abu Taqa Station, the railway engineers routed the railway to the west of the traditional overland pilgrimage road in order to avoid taking the track down the steep slopes of the Mabrak al Naga escarpment. By following the line of Al Khour Valley, they avoided the extreme gradients, but at the bottom of the wadi, Meissner had to incorporate a wide loop to avoid a belt of soft sand. After the railway became defunct in 1925, the shifting sands gradually covered the rail embankment.
Another swathe of soft sand lay across the path of the railway two kilometres north of Hedia Station. To construct the track through such stretches of unstable terrain, clay and stone from local quarries had to be used to shore up the embankment. To the south of Hedia in the desolate region around Jeda'a Station, drifting sand also posed a problem. Much of the railway embankment and some of the ruined remains of the station buildings are now largely covered by wind-blown sand.
Google Earth image (© 2023 Airbus) showing the swathe of sand crossing the path of the railway to the north of Hedia Station and covering part of the embankment
Drifting sand covers much of the rail embankment and some of the ruined remains of the buildings in the remote and desolate area around Jeda'a Station